life and times
hiram who
birth of the auto
border cities
sports heritage

The Roadhouses

from “The Rumrunners – a prohibition scrapbook”
by C. H. (Marty) Gervais, 1980
condensed by Laryssa Landale

Rendezvous Tavern-strategically designed look-out windows

The roaring twenties in the Border Cities. An era when men wore floppy tweed caps, slicked their hair back like Valentino, wore spates, smoked Omar cigarettes or Player’s Navy Cut and carried
revolvers. An age of kiss curl ladies, chiffons, printed art crepes and hats with vagabond crowns.

An age when parents washed their children with Lifebouy soap and their clothes with Rinso “the cold water washer, then sped to the roadhouses for a night out to take in a little Bye Bye Blackbird, the Charleston, jazz band; and, of course, to roll the dice and drink.

The shoreline of the Detroit River was like a diamond-studded bracelet, each glittering jewel a roadhouse. Americans nightly traversed the mile-wide river to moor their yachts till the first glimpses of dawn.

They came to the Canadian shoreline to feast upon the hearty seafood and chicken dinners, soak up the lush, elaborate speakeasies and toss away easy-come, easy-go money in long, bustling, upstairs rooms crammed with gambling table sand flappers.

On those nights, music filtered out from wide verandas and gingerbread barrooms of fabulous roadhouses. Everyone within was caught in amid whirl of music and dancing, safe in the knowledge that although it was illegal to guzzle and gamble, trusty beady-eyes “spotters” stationed in second-storey windows or makeshift towers were ready to sound the alarm, warning of a police raid.

And if the law successfully got wind of the illicit gambling and liquor, it was only a matter of minutes before the booze was stashed behind false walls or into hideaway cupboards along with the gambling paraphernalia. All that remained on view were the huge steaming platters of perch, frog legs and chicken, hastily carried out to bored customers accustomed to such interruptions.

Few of these roadhouses exist today. In the west of Windsor, the Chappell House was the dominating roadhouse. Built within a few feet of Sandwich Street, it had a sign over the entrance, which read: “At All Hours.” There were accompanying signs on the railings advertising frog legs, chicken and fish dinners. This roadhouse, with its prominent veranda, was actually the second Chappell House. It was built by two brothers – Henry and Harley Chappell. They opened their first in 1865 on the Canadian Steel Corporation property in nearby Ojibway.

They sold this and bought the Mineral Springs Hotel in Sandwich, then in 1897 opened up the second Chappell House. Later it would become The Lido Tavern, RumRunners Bar and at present is The President’s Club.

The Chappells ran the roadhouse until it was taken over by the Trumble family. But even before the Trumbles bought it, the roadhouse gained a reputation for its sumptuous meals. The Trumbles ran the hotel until 1949.

To the east were Abars Island View, Edgewater Thomas Inn, the Rendezvous, and others. Michael Vuicic, one-time general manager of the Rendezvous, said the food may have been good in the twenties…but the meals were really “a front” for gambling and drinking.

Edgewater Thomas Inn: a high-class blind-pig
in Riverside – secret passageways and hidden wine cellars.

“You could eat all the perch you wanted downstairs for fifty cents…and upstairs there was gambling and booze.”

When the old bar was removed and replaced many years ago, the simple, but reliable, old buzzer system was torn out. “This place was wired in with four other roadhouses – the Edgewater Thomas Inn, Abars Island View, the Golden House and Tecumseh Tavern. One would buzz that the police were on the way and all stuff would be stashed.”

Vuicic said bottles were often flung from the second-storey windows into a moat fronting the building. It was also from this second floor that spotters were situated to watch the movements of the police. Old photographs of the Rendezvous reveal just how deliberate the builders of the roadhouse were in the placement of the windows; they face east and west to watch the road. If a raiding party was spotted, the buzzer would sound to warn other hotels that a raid was about to occur.

The only surviving hotel wired to the Rendezvous is Abars Island View. The name is derived from the Hebert family, the original owners. Henri Hebert, a local fisherman, registered the name “Abars,” in 1893 because he thought the French pronunciation of his name was more familiar in its anglicized spelling. The hotel remained in the family for three generations, and the name became a symbol of fine cuisine.

Built to serve the stagecoach lines, the hitching rail at the front entrance remained long after automobiles made their appearance. At the turn of the century, the roadhouse became a leading nightspot on the waterfront and lured high society visitors from Detroit. Formal dress was the order and local patrons were sometimes discouraged from dining there.

The Rendezvous Bar, wired into four other
roadhouses to alert them about police raids.

At the entrance sat the flamboyant Mrs. Hebert, dressed in jewels and furs, to greet her guests – the Fishers, the Dodges, the Fords, Jack Dempsey, Al Capone. Or members of the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees who yachted to Abars because regulations forbade them to be seen in Detroit speakeasies. They directed their launches into Abars’ docks at the mouth of the Detroit River, with its magnificent view of the Detroit skyline.

But of all the inns and roadhouses the Edge-water Thomas Inn was the most fashionable eating and drinking spot in the area. Owned by the eccentric Bertha Thomas, she was considered “a pioneer” in the restaurant and roadhouse business in the Detroit-Windsor area.

The former Bertha Haf of Detroit, she came to Windsor as a widow and purchased a small three-room Riverside eatery. She cooked meals and waited on customers until she could afford both additional space and waiters.

In the twenties, the Edgewater Thomas Inn with its gingerbread entrances, mahogany-panelled walls, its fabulous “shore dinners,” the hideaway gambling and plush interior, became a favourite haunt for Detroiters.

As business increased and her popularity as a hostess grew, Bertha added more space. At the time of her death in 1955, Bertha operated one of the most widely known and patronized dining and partying establishments in the area.

Bertha Thomas: eccentric
roadhouse pioneer

But it was in the roaring twenties that Bertha earned her reputation. Thomas’ inn was equipped with secret passageways and hidden wine cellars. During prohibition it only took the “tip of a stick” and the bottles of liquor slid down a chute. Moments later soft drinks would magically appeared in their place.

When Thomas’ inn was the target of a raid, musicians had duties too. Their task was to rush to customers’ tables and dump glasses of liquor on to the well-padded carpets.

On one occasion when a band member missed the rug and booze splashed all over the dance floor, it was mopped up by the raiding party – with charges laid against Bertha. But the clever roadhouse owner wasn’t to be outdone. She proved that the dance floor had been recently varnished and the varnish contained, curiously enough, alcohol.

Bertha’s parking attendants also had double duties. Louis Baillargeon was officially employed to park patron’s cars, but in fact was used as a “spotter.” He was hired as a young boy by Bertha, who felt Louis lacked the proper homelife and advantages of other children. She paid for his schooling and kept him at work. Before directing him to park cars, she sequestered Louis in a strategic window location of the hotel where he was duty bound to do his homework and keep his eye on the movements of the police.

Bertha would often try to bribe police during a raid. One legendary tale recounts how she placed ten-dollar bills on the floor in a trail leading from the entrance of the hotel to the back door exit. The police simply followed the path strewn with money – and left the inn without charging her.

Bertha’s wealth was made during the twenties, and throughout the years following prohibition she dispensed it generously to the community. She often helped struggling friends by paying their mortgages. In later years, she threw fabulous Halloween parties for children in Riverside.

“If she didn’t like you, you were in trouble,” remembers a former Riverside police officer, who added, “if she fancied you, then you were OK.”

The officer added although many believed Thomas’ inn was a fashionable nightspot, it really was “a high class blind pig,” and, when it caught fire in 1970, the legendary hidden rooms were revealed.

“She had all kinds of places to hide the booze, and there were buzzers all over the place, outside under the window sills or in the little shack they had for the parking boys. There were buzzers inside near the bar and in various other rooms…and there were false walls that would open up…she had it all figured out.”

Bertha, he recalls too, was “a real show girl,” One time, a Detroiter fell into the river near one of the docks behind the roadhouse. “Bertha jumped in after her, and of course, the police then had the task of saving them both.”

No matter how many time the Edgewater Thomas Inn was raided by the police during the twenties, it was always back in business in less than ten minutes. “A fine was nothing to her,” another policeman said. “It was just part of the operating expenses for Bertha.”

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